The Grilling

A Q&A with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche
The Subject: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche


Paris, 5 July 2015

The Grilling—A Q&A with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche | The Subject: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Paris, 5 July 2015

Would you tell us a bit about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse?

‘Dzongsar’ is the name of a Sakyapa monastery in Kham, and ‘Khyentse’ was a monk at this monastery who became a lama. For generations, members of his family had been monks and they all lived in the monks’ quarters at Dzongsar Monastery.

Dzongsar belongs to the Ngorpa branch of the Sakyapa school, but as far as Sakyapa hierarchy was concerned, it wasn’t an important monastery. Yet the qualities of this Khyentse lama were so remarkable that never before had Tibet seen such a great lama.

The name ‘Chime Drupe Gatsel’ was given to the house at Dzongsar where this monk lived. Later it became known as ‘Khyentse Labrang’. Throughout his lifetime, the respect and reverence people felt for this monk grew and grew, yet in spite of his increasing fame, in the latter part of his life he didn’t moved one inch from Chime Drupe Gatsel. He remained there like a mountain, unmoveable, and always very humble and completely free of worldly activities. The history of this monk and his Dharma teachings are now known and practised all over the world. His name was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

His aunt—his father’s sister—also lived at Dzongsar. She was a nun, and people used to say that her realization was even higher than that of Khyentse Wangpo.

Khyentse Wangpo passed away at the age of 73. His incarnation was Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, whose story is very similar [1]The Life of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, translated in English by Matthew Akester, Shechen Publications, 2012. Shambhala Publications will be offering an English translation of Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche soon. to that of his predecessor, except that towards the end of his life Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö became a ngakpa. His incarnation, Yangsi Rinpoche, is the Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche we all know today.

What connection do you have with Yangsi Rinpoche, the present Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche?

The qualities of the two previous Khyentse Rinpoches, the first and second emanations, are probably the same as those of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. But for me, they are both even greater and more important than either the Buddha or Guru Rinpoche, because… I was going to say because their kindness is much greater, but actually maybe it’s just that I like them more. This is why I know their Yangsi Rinpoche so well. I first met him when he was seven years old, so I’ve know him for forty-eight years and have spent a lot of time with him. We have a very strong connection.

Who is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s true root teacher?

He has had many different teachers, so I can’t be sure. It’s not really for me to say, but I think that probably for him, the most important of all his lamas, his root teacher, is His Holiness Sakya Trizin. Then Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, his paternal grandfather. The master he spent the most time with and received the most transmissions from was Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, with whom he had an incredible connection. And the master he has the greatest devotion for is Karmapa Rigpe Dorje—the 16th Karmapa. He has also had many other teachers from the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools, and has received Gelugpa teachings. In fact, he made a big effort to track down a root teacher from the Gelugpa school, but couldn’t find anyone without a connection to Phabongka Dechen Nyingpo. Actually he’s never stopped searching, but still can’t find one. It’s one of his greatest difficulties and regrets.

My point is, he has received many empowerments, reading transmissions and practice instructions from the various Tibetan traditions. Who knows whether or not he’s received more than his previous incarnations, but after Khyentse Wangpo and Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, he’s probably the lama who, in the true Rimé spirit of his predecessors, has received the most teachings and transmissions from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

From Dezhung Rinpoche he received many teachings, empowerments and reading transmissions from the Sakya tradition, and at that time he really thought of himself as a Sakyapa. I met up with him then, and saw for myself that the way he spoke was entirely Sakyapa. So I was very happy.

From his maternal grandfather, Lama Sonam Zangpo, he received a great many teachings and transmissions from the Kagyupa tradition, for example the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra. He also thoroughly applied himself to the tsa-lung yogic practices. Again, I met up with him as he was receiving these transmissions and saw for myself that at that time he genuinely thought of himself a Kagyupa. He used to say that the protector Düsol Lhamo was a very important protector, which I thought was very good.

Then from Nyoshul Khenpo he received Dzogpachenpo teachings, such as Yeshe Lama and the Nyengyü teachings. I met him afterwards and he told me how incredible the Dzogchen teachings are—which didn’t surprise me. I never doubted that he would eventually become a Nyingmapa. However he only started teaching Dzogchen later in life because Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had said he wasn’t allowed to teach it before the age of 50.

If he could only find a teacher from the Gelugpa tradition with no link to Phabongka Dechen Nyingpo, there are many teachings and transmissions he’d like to receive, for example the Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. But so far he hasn’t found anyone.

He’d also like to receive, the ‘Three Tantric Teachings for Inner Investigation’ from the Kagyupa tradition, ‘Profound Inner Meaning’, (Wyl. zab mo nang don,); the Two Sections of the Hevajra Root Tantra (Wyl. rtsa rgyud brtags gnyis); and Sublime Continuum (Wyl. rgyud bla ma), but so far hasn’t had the opportunity. So in all these ways, he is very like the other Khyentse incarnations.

His previous incarnation had an important relationship with some Bönpo teachers. But for Yangsi Rinpoche, there’s been no mention of the Bönpos until now; nothing’s happened there. And Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo used to be one of the main holders of the Jonangpa tradition.

Therefore, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is clearly an upholder of the Rimé tradition and as such looks just like a Khyentse incarnation. Yet the Nyingmapas say he looks like a Sakyapa and didn’t want him to take part in the big meeting of Nyingmapas we had in Bodhgaya. It had been suggested that we put Dzongsar Khyentse on the board of the Nyingma group, but there were some objections. The problem with Dzongsar Khyentse, they said, is that he is like the god Brahma who has four heads, and therefore he won’t represent the Nyingmapas at all well.

Amongst the Sakyapas, although everyone has the greatest respect for His Holiness Sakya Trizin, none of the other Sakya lamas are really valued. The Kagyupas used to recognize Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo as one of the ‘Golden Rosary of Lives’ lineage masters—he was one of the greatest masters of the Kagyu tradition—but now they’ve taken him out. By and large the Gelugpas no longer afford any respect for the Jamyang Khyentses.

Dzongsar Khyentse is the incarnation of many important lamas, but his behaviour and, for example, the way he dresses, is often strange. He’s also been known to do all sorts of odd things. Why is that?

In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there are three approaches: the teachings of the Shravakas, the teachings of the Bodhisattvas and the teachings of the Secret Mantra. In India these three approaches were most probably practised separately, but the Tibetan tradition has made it possible for an individual to practise all three together. We must, therefore, keep the Shravaka precepts as a matter of course. And so, as many of Yangsi Rinpoche’s teachers instructed him to take ordination, and his close attendants and friends also requested that he do so, at the age of twenty, he went to receive ordination from Kyabjé Trulshik Rinpoche. I was also there at that time. But as things turned out, he didn’t really ‘receive’ the ordination vows.

The ceremony was performed very elaborately and although the Vinaya only requires five ordained monks to be present, Trulshik Rinpoche invited ten. But two of them had already broken their vows. We knew they had, but I don’t think Trulshik Rinpoche did—about a year later they disrobed and went abroad. Which means that at that time, all the requirements for full ordination according to the Vinaya tradition were not fulfilled, and therefore Yangsi Rinpoche didn’t ‘receive’ the Vinaya vows. And as he wasn’t ever bound by the Vinaya vows, he has nothing to keep! He may feel as though he’s maintaining the vows on an aspirational level, who knows? But from the Vinaya point of view, such an approach does not exist. As he’s not bound by these vows, why should he behave as though he is? Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche would never pretend he had ‘received’ the Vinaya vows when he hasn’t—it’s not something he would ever do.

It’s not true to say that Dzongsar Khyentse does many strange things. On the odd occasion he might wear unusual clothes or a funny hat or wig in public, in plain sight of everyone. And he might, of course, hug and kiss girls. But this kind of behaviour is commonplace in the western world—it’s part of western tradition, right? On television you even see people kissing His Holiness the Dalai Lama [2]At Glastonbury pop festival in 2015, Patti Smith kissed His Holiness the Dalai Lama after he joined her on stage.!

Dzongsar Khyentse doesn’t wear a Heruka’s ornaments and clothing or walk around like a yogi. And he certainly never pretends to have a level of realization that he’s never achieved. If you are not a Mahasiddha, to wear such things publicly is considered very bad because you are breaking samaya. Yet, there are some who complain because he doesn’t do that! Personally, I think it’s probably better that he doesn’t. You must have attained a very high level of realization and great powers before you can wear ngakpa ornaments. And even Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, for example, didn’t ever wear the robes of a ngakpa; he always dressed as a householder.

I’ve rarely seen Khyentse Rinpoche walk around in strange outfits. But once you’ve landed in this world and have to interact with other people, you have no choice but to wear some kind of clothing, don’t you? These days lamas seem to wear all manner of regalia and ornaments—they look like the Emperor of China, even though they’re neither kings nor emperors!

One of the weirdest things Khyentse Rinpoche does is walk around in his underwear. For someone like me, to see him in just his underpants is uncomfortable, to say the least! If you walk into his presence and find him half-naked, even though you know you’re supposed to prostrate, you’re usually so shoc